TALES OF TAKOMA: Nature in early Takoma Park

IMAGE: The 1901 Brochure cover. Image courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.

TALES OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN

Benjamin Franklin Gilbert would welcome the renewed interest in making nature part of our daily lives. When he founded Takoma Park in 1883, he called it a “sylvan suburb” to evoke the benefits from living in proximity to natural amenities.

His first marketing brochure, published in 1886, was a 20-page booklet filled with wonderful pen-and-ink drawings of the earliest houses. The pitch to potential new residents also extolled the virtues of country living: ”Nature has certainly done much to make Takoma Park a most healthful place of residence. She has supplied it most bountifully with….pure water [which] makes its appearance from springs that are crystal-like in their clearness, and goes flowing down the valleys in sparkling rivulets…All who attempt to live in health ought to have good air and good water.”

And this: “[A] good night’s rest in the cool and quiet country, away from the heat…and noxious airs of the busy city is enough to add new life to a man.”

Takoma was blessed with trees: “[A] most pleasant diversity to the landscape, which is covered with a great variety of trees…pine, tulip-poplar, oak, chestnut, maple, magnolia, and shrub like holly and laurel…of sufficient size to produce most ample and delightful shade.” Gilbert pointed out that “the 150 residents….take pleasure in beautifying their immediate surroundings by preparing lawns, walks, flower beds, setting out hedges and gardens…adding comeliness and completeness to the naturally beautiful landscape.”

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The 1886 Brochure. Image courtesy Historic Takoma, Inc.

Two years later, the revised brochure waxed poetic on Sligo Creek, comparing it to Tennyson’s Song of the Brook: “It gathers its clear, cool water from numerous springs as it flows onward over its ‘stony ways’…the heavily wooded slopes of its banks…glens wild and romantic…ferns and wild flowers of every hue. The…musical undertone of the waters as they glide, not rush over the rocks, conspires to make this a haunt.” But this was just a warmup for the third brochure produced by the Takoma Park Citizens Association in 1901, “where any well-ordered man should be free from worldly troubles.”

It begins: “Takoma Park! There is a touch of Nature in the very name itself – a suggestion of woodland and wild flower, of winding roads, of hill and vale!…There is a dream of Nature primitive, the forest trees, the giant oak, the sturdy pine…a tippling cadence of a crystal stream laughing its merry way through sylvan depths.”

“Nature, the greatest of landscape gardeners, the greatest of painters, seems to have concentrated her efforts upon the superb beauty she has bestowed upon this lovely region….[T]he brilliant greens of an almost virgin forest, then an instant later…panoramas of field and glades, hill and sky…dreamy, hazy purples of glorious distance, while ever and anon beautiful villas and cottages…inspires the lover of Nature whose privilege it is to dwell in its midst….”

On trees: “Located within the very depths of a densely wooded country…its dwellers have ample and abundant shade…the most lordly of oaks….invite rest from the sun. The chestnut…adds to the joys of childhood…[T]he pine…infuses its health giving properties into the very air….[The] hickory, the dogwood, the holly, the laurel…all in prodigal profusion!”

On benefits to children: “An ideal place for children…plenty of outdoor room, plenty of pure air, plenty of God’s sunshine, broadens their chests, expands their lungs and reddens their cheeks, while contact with nature, the birds, the flowers, the rocks…cultivates the brain, awakens the intellect and forms the only true basis for a genuine and lasting intelligence.”

On birds: “Few things add more to the charms of suburban life than this companionship of the birds–beautiful of plumage and sweet of song–robins, brown thrushes, orioles, redstarts, jays, finches, humming birds, tanagers, wood thrushes, cardinals, vireos, bluebirds, catbirds, and the many others that enliven our woods and rear their young around our doors…”

On flowers, “From the time when the first Spring Beauty opens its delicate petals to the March winds…there is a rich succession of flower and fruit …anemones..dogwoods…rhododendron…golden-rod and evening primrose, the maple’s autumn banners and the hardy little asters are smiling at the frost again.”

One author summed it up best: “Come and live near the heart of Nature and you cannot help but be bettered.”

These sentiments encouraged newcomers, and built a community that prized these gifts of nature. It remains a vision worth fighting for.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.

1 Comment on "TALES OF TAKOMA: Nature in early Takoma Park"

  1. Hydrotherapy, Millenarianism, tree worship – man, people in the 19th century were dumb!

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